Wisdom and Folly

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Mirrors reflect back reality to us. We looks in mirrors to see what we look like. Sometimes we like what we see in the mirror. Sometimes we don't like what we see in the mirror.

Ecclesiastes can be a bit like looking at the mirror on a bad hair day. It can be a little painful because it hold up a mirror to our world. The Teacher does not pull any punches. He tells you as it is. The headline we've heard repeated is, "Everything is meaningless" which is better translated as everything is vapour. Life is here for a moment and then it's gone. The Teacher is saying that life is, as someone put it, "frustrating fleeting."

Because life is frustrating fleeting it does not always work out as it should. Even when we make seemingly wise choices things can go pear shaped. It's as if there's been an earthquake and the map doesn't quite work anymore. The Teacher has reminded us that both the wise and the foolish face the same fate. Wisdom has its limitations yet he says the wisdom is still greater than folly. So the Teacher returns to the topic of wisdom and folly in chapter 10. The teacher gives us five snapshots of folly in our fallen world.

Firstly we see folly in the heart (1-3). Verse 1 says, "As dead flies give perfume a bad smell so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honour." Imagine an Israelite buying some expensive perfume from the market to give to his finacee only to find when he gets home there's a dead fly in it! Suddenly the sweet smell has overtones of dead fly! The fly spoils the perfume. So just a little folly spoils a whole lot of wisdom.

A few years ago I made a crumble. I was living in a shared house. I needed some brown sugar and my housemate, who was a health food enthusiast, had a pot on the side. I made up the crumble mix. Poured it on top of the fruit. Baked it. Took it out of the oven, gave myself a portion and served it with ice cream. As I sat in front of the TV eating my crumble I realised something wasn't right: what I thought was brown sugar was bulgar wheat! The bulgar wheat spoils the crumble. In the same way just a little folly mars wisdom. We know that at work. Just one mistake spoils a whole lot of good work. Just one misplaced word in a conversation can trigger terrible consequences. Just one daft email undoes so much good.

The source of this folly the Teacher says is the heart. Come with me to verse 2: "The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of the fool to the left." In ancient times the right hand was associated with strength that saves, supports and protects. The left was associated with spiritual and practical foolishness. Wisdom in Ecclesiastes is to fear God (12:13), to live acknowledging him. Not fearing God like a schoolyard bully, but revering him like a king. Folly is to ignore him. And such an attitude is revealed in our foolish actions according to the Teacher in verse 3: "Even as he walks along the road, the fool lack sense and shows everyone how stupid he is." Our hearts are hidden, but we see folly of our hearts overflow in our actions. We find folly not just in our hearts but among our leaders' too.

Verses 4-7 show us folly in high places (4-7). Verse 4 paints us a vivid picture of an angry ruler: "If a ruler's anger rises against you, do not leave your post: calmness can lay great offense to rest." We live in a world where rulers display anger at their people. Anger is a consequence of disharmony. We'll find it in any school, workplace or government. So the Teacher says anger must be soothed with a calm attitude that does not panic or turn to bitterness. Wisdom trusts God to be in control. Wisdom allows space for God to judge. But why is this command necessary? Verse 5 tells us there will be folly in leadership:

"There is an evil I have seen under the sun, the sort of error that arises from a ruler: Fools are put in many high positions, while the rich occupy the low ones. I have seen slaves on horseback, while princes go on foot like slaves."

In a fallen word you will find folly in leadership: work, government and even the church. Some people will lack the resources to rule but have opportunity. Some will have the resources to rule but lack the opportunity. The film Gladiator is about a soldier who is equipped to govern. He should be the ruler of Rome. Yet he is made a humble gladiator by an Emperor who is not equipped to rule wisely. Such stories ring true with us because in a fallen world life is not as it should be. Thankfully we're not gladiators, but we know life is often not as it should be. Life in a fallen world can be topsy turvy, disordered and upside down. If you're not a follower of Jesus, do you recognise this world the Teacher describes? The Bible does not paint a dreamy view of life; it deals with gritty realities.

Next the Teacher shows us a snapshot of folly in action (8-11). The Teacher shows us that actions with evil intent often have the habit of rebounding in verse 8:

"Whoever digs a pit may fall into it; whoever breaks through a wall may be bitten by a snake."

If you dig a pit to trap someone you may just fallen into it. If you gossip about someone as a means to getting back at them it may backfire. We make our bed and we lie in it! And even constructive activities have built in danger! Verse 8 says: "Whoever quarries stones may be injured by them; whoever splits logs may be endangered by them."

Verse 10 says skill helps in work, but slackness removes the benefits of skill: "If a snake bites before it is charmed, there is no profit for the charmer." You may be the most skilled snake charmer in the world but if the snake bites you before you've charmed it, well your skill is made useless! You may be a musical genius but if you don't practice then you still won't sound any good!

Folly is often most clearly seen in our work. In verses 12-15 the Teacher shows us a snapshot of folly in words and work (12-15). Look at the contrast between the words of wisdom and folly in verse 12:

"Words from a wise man's mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips. 13 At the beginning his words are folly; at the end they are wicked madness-- 14 and the fool multiplies words. No-one knows what is coming-- who can tell him what will happen after him?"

Wise words a gracious, they show undeserved kindness. But foolish words are consume the speaker. Foolish words are 'wicked madness.' Sinful words (like sin) are irrational and twisted. Sin is irrational. Think back to the garden when the snake says to Eve, "You will not die." Folly ignores God's words. Foolish words express such irrationality. They ignore what God says, because folly thinks it knows better than God. To say, "Just fiddle your work expenses, it's fine, everyone does it!" is an example of how irrational folly is. Folly calls sin good. Folly calls God's goodness into doubt. The fool speaks without reference to God, and speaks as if he is God like knowing what is coming. To say "Next year, I'm going to make a stack of cash," is to speak as if you know what is coming. But the Teacher calls out the fool – no one but God knows what is coming!

Not only are the words of fools wicked but their work is wearisome. We see this in verse 15:

"A fool's work wearies him; he does not know the way to town."

If I asked you the way into town, you'd say walk up the boulevard and hop on the metro and get off at Gateshead. The way to town is obvious! The Teacher's point here is that the fool ignores the obvious. The result is they end up lost! They end up wearied!

The Teachers shows us folly on the small stage of the life, now he shows us it on the public stage. Verses 16-20 paints a picture of folly in national life (16-20). The issue of wisdom and folly is deadly serious says the Teacher because they lead to different destinations. In verse 16 the Teacher gives a snapshot of the nation going down the path of folly: "Woe to you, O land whose king was a servant and whose princes feast in the morning." In the footnote we see that the word servant can mean child. Woe is what waits a country lead by the immature. Compare it to the land in verse 17: "Blessed are you, O land whose king is of noble birth and whose princes eat at a proper time--for strength and not for drunkenness." The nation with a noble, that is mature king, ends up blessed. Notice too when the princes eat. The immature king feasts in the morning. He has no self-control. The mature king eats at the proper time: he has self control!

Self control in rule is blessed, not self indulgence. The Teacher tells his students to enjoy life time and time again in Ecclesiastes. Enjoy God's creation gifts of food, drink and work. But he tells us to exercise self control. Followers of Jesus are not to be addicted to food, wine and work, but neither are they called to live like spoil sport hermits. We are to be self controlled.

A lack of self control, self indulgence and sluggishness leads to slow but steady decay. Verse 18 says: "If a man is lazy, the rafters sag; if his hands are idle, the house leaks." In the following verse the mindset of the fool is made plain, the material becomes the sum total of life: "A feast is made for laughter, and wine makes life merry, but money is the answer for everything." The writer of Ecclesiastes acknowledges the goodness of these things, but says the wise man fears the Lord. The wise man acknowledges there is more beyond this life.

So he ends this section with how not to treat a ruler in verse 20: "Do not revile the king even in your thoughts, or curse the rich in your bedroom, because a bird of the air may carry your words, and a bird on the wing may report what you say." Earlier the Teacher says remain calm in the face of foolish rulers. Now the Teacher says do not revile the king or his rulers. In the days of immature and indulgent leadership the Teacher says stay calm. Do not go the way of bitterness. This is not the total Biblical response to difficult rulers, but it is something we need to hear. So often we fall into panic when the government does something that ignores God's wisdom. The Teacher says remain calm.

Yet when we look on our own folly. When we look on the folly of our world it's hard to be calm. So much of life is beset with folly. Too often life tastes like a crumble made with bulgar wheat. Eating crumble made out of bulgar wheat makes you cry out for soft, sweet sugar. So living in a world where folly outweighs honour makes us cry out for wisdom. Hunger reveals a need for food. Thirst reveals a need for water. Folly reveals our need for wisdom.

Yet our of hearts comes folly. We see it in our rulers. We see it on our words. We see it in our work. We see it in our national life. It makes us long for wisdom! So two thousand years ago God sent a man from whose heart came wisdom. He was a prince who was treated as a slave. He knew the topsy turvy nature of this world. This man knew what would come in his future, yet he did the work of his Father and went to the cross. As he died upon the cross he spoke words of pure grace: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." (Lk 24:34)

You see wisdom is perfectly fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He is the wisdom of God. And remarkably the apostle Paul says God made Jesus the believer's wisdom. What does that mean? The apostle Paul says this in 1 Corinthians 1:30:

"It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God- that is our righteousness, holiness and redemption."

Wisdom is what God has done in Christ to save his people. If you're trusting in Jesus God no longer sees your record of folly. When God looks at you he sees Christ's record of perfect wisdom. Christ is your righteousness, and you've been clothed with it! When you remember your folly, remember Christ is your wisdom before God! If you're not yet following Jesus, God's offer to cover your record of folly with Christ's wisdom is open to you too.

God calls us to admit our need for true wisdom, for Jesus to be our wisdom. And he calls us fear him, that is to live wisely. You see living wisely is to submit to Jesus as king. If you think submitting to Jesus will mess with your life, you'd be right. But it's a messing with your life for the good. Following Jesus means submitting to a wise king. It means submitting to king who gave up everything for you. He's a king you can trust.

The resources to follow the teacher's instruction are found in the Christ's work for us. How do we resist panic and bitterness when faced with a difficult ruler? We resist panic because Jesus knows what is coming; he is in control. We resist bitterness because he will judge when he returns so we don't have to. One day we'll live under his perfect rule. His grace to us gives us the resource to show grace to others.

The Bible holds up a mirror that is brutally realistic, yet is utterly optimistic. We lack wisdom, yet God has made it possible for Christ to be our wisdom. God offers to make Christ your wisdom. The question for your is this: what will you make of Christ?

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